Our true “Notre Dame”. Some cathedral-thinking for Easter Sunday—Christ as the gardener

Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener (unknown artist c. 1500)
READING: John 20:1-18

I think it is quite well-known by now that the English word “Easter” seems likely to have been derived from the Old English “Easterdæg”, from “Eastre” (Northumbrian “Eostre”) and from the Proto-Germanic “austron-, meaning “dawn” which was also the name of a goddess of fertility and spring, perhaps originally of sunrise, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, from “aust-” meaning “east, toward the sunrise” from the Proto-Indo-European root “aus-” meaning “to shine”, especially of the dawn.

    In other words, the genealogy of the name Easter can stand as a reminder that the prototype of our Christian, Easter celebrations is to be found in the renewal and restoration of life each day at dawn and each year at the spring equinox. It helps us see that it is natura naturans, nature doing what nature does, which underpins ALL human religious traditions and not the other way round. Natura naturans is fundamental, primordial, whilst Christianity is not; everything in Christianity — and indeed everything in all religions — depends upon natura naturans. If you hold on to this thought you will, I hope, see why I have chosen to write this Easter Sunday address in the way I have and why I have chosen to read the particular resurrection story I have today.


Our true “Notre Dame”. Some cathedral-thinking for Easter Sunday—Christ as the gardener

The Sylvan Nave at Wandlebury taken in December 2018
For me, one of the great pleasures of life is to cycle up the Gog Magog Hills to Wandlebury Country Park, then to walk along the Roman Road to Meg’s Mount and, on the way back, to visit the Iron Age Hill Fort (c. 400 BC) by going via the magnificent sylvan nave made up of some four-hundred beech trees. Whenever I walk down it, it seems almost certain that some ancient, magnificent avenue of trees like this must have been the original inspiration for the naves of our churches, especially the naves of our great cathedrals.

    However, given my own highly conflicted relationship with organised Christianity, Wandlebury’s sylvan nave is a place in which some words once uttered by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright in an interview with Mike Wallace in 1957 often come back into mind. Wallace began by asking Wright what was his attitude to organised Christianity? Wright replied:

Why organize it? Christianity doesn’t need organizing according to the Master of it, the great master poet of all times didn’t want it organized, did he? Didn’t Jesus say . . . that wherever a few are gathered in my name, there is my Church?

    Wallace then asked Wright whether he went “to any specific church?” — and bear in mind Wright designed some of the most famous modern American places of worship including a couple of Unitarian ones — Wright replied:

Yes, I go occasionally to this one, and then sometimes to that one, but my church I put a capital N on Nature and go there.

Venus in the Manse Garden bathed in spring sunshine
    I’m with Wright all the way on both these matters and this is why I sometimes try to encourage us to think of this community as a garden community and to come along on a Sunday with the same attitude and feelings we have when we are visiting a garden or park or, indeed, a wood. It’s also why, as you heard a few weeks ago, if and when I feel the need to personify God I now only do so as Mother Nature and, following the example of the Roman poet Lucretius, by naming her as Venus. For both Lucretius and for me, religious naturalists, materialists and atheists alike, our lady, Notre Dame Venus, is a suitable poetic supreme fiction because under that form she can help us better picture the somewhat abstract idea of natura naturans as the mother [māter] of all creation who is herself made of the same matter [māteriēs] that she creates. As the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nail puts it, “The mother of matter is the matter of the mother” and so her creation, this glorious natural world, is, therefore, “the process of matter’s own process of materialization. Maternalization is materialization” (Lucretius 1: An ontology of motion, Edinburgh University Press, 2018, p 24).

    The use of images drawn from the natural world is, of course, not wholly alien to Christianity and one might point to the kinds of things gathered together under the modern title of “Celtic Christianity”. But, today, I want to point to some lesser known words uttered by Uchimura Kanzō who founded a non-conformist Christian movement in Japan during the first years of the twentieth century known as mu-kyōkai or “No-Church” which “sought directly to respond to the call in the Gospel without the mediation, or the intervention, of the institutional church.” Although there is much about Uchimura’s form of evangelical Christianity I do not personally find amenable there is one aspect of it that I continue both to like and admire and which does chime with something key within religious naturalist thinking. Uchimura felt that while some churches are made of stone, others of brick and yet others of wood for the believers in the “No Church” the church is “the universe created by God; it is of nature” and he goes on to add that:

Its ceiling is the azure blue sky, adorned [at night] with bright stars. Its floor is the green pasture, dotted with flowers of infinite colours. Its musical instrument is the boughs of pine trees and its musicians are the birds in the forest. Its altar is the mountain peaks and its preacher is God Himself. Such is the church for all of us who believe in the “No Church” (cited in Uchimura Kanzō and His “No Church Christianity”: Its Origin and Significance in Early Modern Japan, Religious Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3, Sep., 1987, pp. 377-390).

    Now all these thoughts came flooding back into mind last week as I, like millions of others, watched with a heavy and sorrowful heart the great medieval cathedral of Notre Dame in the heart of Paris go up in flames. Over the years I’ve spent many months living and working in Paris and so I was viscerally and personally effected by what I saw — some buildings are more than just buildings. But, but, but . . . as I hope my opening paragraphs have made clear, Notre Dame Cathedral is utterly dependent upon Mother Nature for her existence because, not only is she made of the same matter as our material mother in the form of stone, wood, precious metals, stones and glass and everything else in her physical structure (including her nature-inspired designs and forms such as the rose-windows), the minds that conceived of, and the hands that made her — which, if you like mothered her form into being — are also made of the same material as our Mother Nature, our “alma mater” — quite literally, our “nourishing mother”. Given this I could not then but ask why were countless millions of tears being shed all over the world over her burning and yet so few tears are being shed by those same millions for the burning up of Notre Dame’s own Notre Dame, Mother Nature? How is it we humans can declare an emergency in connection with Notre Dame cathedral and raise nearly a billion Euros in a few days but we cannot bring ourselves to declare an emergency in connection with the threat to our real Notre Dame, Mother Nature and make funding available to help us change our destructive, consumerist lifestyles? How can we not see that a project to resurrect Notre Dame cathedral which doesn’t simultaneously commit itself to the project to ensure the ongoing health and well-being of our true Notre Dame, Mother Nature herself, is to write large the suicidal hypocrisy of our own age?

    So, thank heavens for the wisdom, insight and bravery of the wonderful sixteen-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg who said in her speech to MEPs and EU officials in Strasbourg the day after the fire:

It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. . . . In other words it will take cathedral thinking. I ask you to please wake up and make changes required possible.

Thank heavens, too, that David Attenborough in his BBC1 film broadcast on Thursday called “Climate Change: the Facts” now says clearly that:

It may sound frightening but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies. . . . We’re running out of time but there’s still hope [and] I believe that if we better understand the threat we face, the more likely it is that we can avoid such a catastrophic future.

Thank heavens, too, that even people like Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England and his French counterpart François Villeroy de Galhau, are finally waking up to the fact that the global financial system (which is so much part of the problem) also faces an existential threat from climate change and that if it fails to adjust it, too, will “fail to exist.”

Thank heavens, too, for the hundreds of thousands of climate change activists around the world, adults and children alike, who are currently peacefully out on our streets drawing everybody’s attention — but especially our politicians, industrialists and financiers’ attention — to the need immediately and fundamentally to change our destructive, consumerist ways of living.

    For it is now clear that we simply cannot afford to continue without the kind of “cathedral thinking” spoken of by Thunberg which commits us to the task of keeping the cathedral of nature in the best possible shape we can because, if we don’t, then the important myths and stories of spring resurrection which lie at the heart of the Christian festival of Easter, and which are celebrated year after year around the world in cathedrals like Notre Dame, will ultimately prove merely to be self-destructive delusions.

    With all these thoughts in mind, to conclude today, let me return briefly to the resurrection story we heard earlier from that most mytho-poetical of the gospels, John.

    Does not our current dangerous situation encourage us on this Easter Sunday of all Easter Sundays to reinterpret Mary’s first thought as being not a mistake at all but, instead, a profound insight about who and/or what the supreme fiction that is the risen Christ needs to be for us today? When he was alive in the flesh, not only did Jesus constantly use images from the natural world such as seeds, grain, trees, vines, birds, lilies and so on; not only did Jesus experience one of his greatest moments of doubt as well as his arrest in a garden, the Garden of Gethsemane; and not only was he believed to be buried and then resurrected in a Garden Tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, but Jesus was also always acting as a gardener of the spirit, deliberately sowing seeds of love, compassion and justice into the this-worldly soil of his hearers’ hearts and so it makes perfect sense to think about interpreting the risen Christ not as some transcendent, other-worldy, God-man but as a this-worldy, human gardener.

    This, by the way, is not some wholly eccentric modern thought of my own but, instead, one with ancient Christian roots. Here is Saint Augustine (354-430) writing in the mid-fourth century:

There are points in these words which we must examine with brevity indeed, but with somewhat more than ordinary attention. For Jesus was giving a lesson in faith to the woman, who had recognized Him as her Master, and called Him so in her reply; and this gardener (hortulanus) was sowing in her heart, as in His own garden, the grain of mustard seed. (Tractate CXXI a homily on John 20:10-19 trans. John Gibb in Philip Schaff (ed.), St Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1888, Vol. 7, 437.)

Here is St. Jerome (c. 347–420) in Homily 87 writing in the late fourth/early fifth century:

When Mary Magdalene had seen the Lord . . . she thought that He was the gardener; she was mistaken, indeed, in her vision, but the very error had its prototype. Truly, indeed, was Jesus the gardener of His Paradise, of His trees of Paradise.

And here is Gregory the Great (c. 540–604) writing in the mid-sixth century:

Perhaps this woman erred by not erring, who thought Jesus was the gardener. For was he not to her a spiritual gardener [hortulanus], who in her breast used to plant sprouting seeds of virtues through his love? (Homiliarum in Evangelia LXXVI, Migne Patrologiae Cursus Completus, 1191, trans Rev'd Dr. Hugh Houghton).

    Given these ancient precedents and our very pressing present needs, surely it is not too outrageous to suggest that our own age will only ever be able truly to embrace the impossible, necessary supreme fiction of the resurrected Christ in so far as we can see him as a human gardener at work tending, with loving hands, the beautiful Garden of Eden that is our planet Earth?

    But merely abstractly contemplating this supreme fiction from afar is not enough and, once again an ancient Christian practice may be of help here, namely the Imitation of Christ, the “Imitatio Christi”. Might not this best be practiced today by becoming ourselves resurrected (and insurrectionary) gardeners, not only of an inner spirit but in the outward sense of becoming people passionate about, and fully committed to, the tending and protecting of the very matter of our true māter, our true Notre Dame, Mother Earth herself, dear life-giving Venus?